Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth, the Beginning of a Legend
by John Koster, Chronology Books, an imprint of History Publishing Co., Palisades, N.Y., 2010, $16.95.
This is not a book about Comanche, the late Captain Myles Keogh’s horse and sole survivor of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s immediate command at the June 25, 1876, Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. Comanche and Keogh do, however, get a late chapter in a book that is a quick, entertaining read but also makes a strong case for a human survivor, namely Frank Finkel (also seen as Finkle or Finckle). This second sergeant under Captain Tom Custer’s C Company was, according to author John Koster, shot twice near the river before his wounded sorrel bolted and carried the dazed cavalryman far from the battle. After a stranger in the wilderness helped him nurse his wounds, Finkel rode (on another horse, as his sorrel had died) to Fort Benton on the Missouri River and learned from a newspaper that his entire command had been wiped out at the Little Bighorn.
Koster expands on the Finkel story he told in the June 2007 Wild West and provides more evidence that the tallest of Custer’s men did survive until 1930. Finkel had waited until April 1920 (at a horseshoes game in Dayton, Wash.) to finally reveal his unique past. The main reason he had waited was that he technically was a deserter from the 7th Cavalry. “When he did speak out publicly in 1920,” Koster writes, “it appears to have been impulsively at first rather than planned. He never embellished or romanticized the battle as other ‘sole survivors’ and journalist did, nor did he seek either publicity or money.” His widowed second wife muddied the waters by spreading the falsehood that her husband had enlisted as “Frank Hall.” Born in Ohio in 1854, Frank had helped create the “identity crisis” himself by enlisting under the name August Finckle” and giving his birthplace as “Berlin, Prussia,” because such a background was seen at the time (1872) as an asset, specifically a quick way to rise above private.
There seems little doubt that Finkel and “Finckle” were one and the same based on signature analysis and physical descriptions (including their 6-footplus height). Finkel was seen riding into the valley to fight by Little Bighorn survivors (7th Cavalry troopers who were at the battle but did not meet their end with Custer) Private Peter Thompson and Sergeants Daniel Kanipe and Charles Windolph. After the battle, most of the soldiers’ bodies were badly mutilated. While Kanipe said later that he thought he saw Finkel’s dead body, Windolph said he couldn’t locate his good friend’s corpse. Another C Company member, Private Nathan Short, made it 25 miles from the battlefield before he and his horse died together. Lakota battle participant Rain in the Face later reported that “one Long Sword escaped; his pony ran off with him and went past our lodges” and added that he saw the survivor again in Chicago, a city Finkel sometimes visited. That was Koster’s man, right? Well, nobody knows for sure.
Koster’s investigation into Finkel’s story was thorough, but his conclusions will not satisfy every Little Bighorn expert and would-be expert. No question, though, that the author has put together a strong case. Open-minded readers might not flinch should they hear, “Everyone in Custer’s immediate command was killed —except for the horse Comanche and probably the soldier Finkel.”
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.